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Indigenous Women: The importance of sharing, learning and growing as leaders

FRIDAY FILE: From March 5-8, 2011, the 6th Continental Meeting of Indigenous Women of the Americas (ECMIA in Spanish) took place in the Hueyapan Community, in Morelos, Mexico. AWID spoke to two of the participants, Cecilia Velasque and Tania Pariona Tarqui, about the event and their insights on the status of indigenous women’s rights in the region.

By Gabriela De Cicco

The importance of sharing, learning and growing as leaders

Approximately 300 indigenous women from Argentina, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, USA and Venezuela took part in the 6th ECMIA.

Meetings of this kind are important for women active in grassroots organizations as they facilitate sharing and comparing experiences across communities and countries. “It is good for collective and personal reflection and for their empowerment,” Cecilia Velasque tells us. “For the women leaders, their participation allows them to strengthen their leadership and, to become more interested in claiming rights at the level of their own communities and organizations, and even at the State level.”

Many women have managed to become leaders in mixed organizations as a result of their participation in these meetings. But this has not been easy at all, because as Velasque describes, “once they become leaders, they have their own voices in decision-making spaces, they contribute ideas and challenge others, and this change always brings out a reaction from many male leaders.”

There was a significant presence of young indigenous women between the ages of 14 and 29 years at the ECMIA. For Tania Pariona Tarqui, “The participation of indigenous youth is important in these spaces where the fate of our people is planned and decided. The voice of the youth is important in addressing the issues affecting us, as well as in building alternatives to overcome them, for example, regarding reproductive health, and the importance of highlighting the issue of teenage pregnancies and providing access to information on care and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). We believe that when a working methodology with indigenous youth is designed, it has to begin with acknowledging the identity of the young people and their vision of a life project, and it should also take into account the rural or urban context in which the young women or girls are living.”

The young women believe that sharing experiences and transferring knowledge from their ‘elder indigenous sisters’ to the new generation is key to addressing their struggles and ensuring the continuity of their peoples. According to Pariona Tarqui, “To learn about the struggle for our rights as peoples, fought by elder indigenous sisters from our countries and other regions, strengthens our historical role, commitment and development of positive leadership.”

The situation of Indigenous women’s rights in the region

While there have been some advances in the field of women’s rights, for Velasque, “The reality of indigenous women in terms of access to education, health, political participation and decision-making spaces continues to be disproportionate to men. In those countries with significant populations of indigenous peoples and nationalities, our rights continue to be violated by our very own male leaders and sometimes by women in positions of authority. In cases of indigenous community justice, the disadvantages women face are clearly visible, in terms of access to justice and conflict-resolution, be it in the family, community or any other space.”

According to Velasque, some of the key problems faced by Indigenous women are, “illiteracy, lack of culturally appropriate health services, little access to decision-making spaces, inequity and lack of opportunities to participate in political and economic processes, as well as in access to land and its tenure.”

With regards to the rights of young indigenous women, Pariona Tarqui agrees, “The spaces providing opportunities for training, growth in leadership, access to leadership positions including at the political level are very scarce. There are no adequate mechanisms in place to guarantee the participation of young indigenous women in local, national and international spaces where youth policies are decided. We believe our demands will not be made visible if we are not there to articulate them.”

With respect to health, “There is insufficient access to information about the right to sexual and reproductive health that respects our worldviews and is based on the life plan of each nation.” As for education and employment for young women, “There are still equality gaps to enter, remain in and conclude primary, secondary and higher education. Employment opportunities without exploitation or discrimination based on ethnic origins and gender are lacking.”

Young activists make issues visible for more in-depth discussion

“As youth we have been raising issues that need to be addressed in different spaces, such as the lack of cultural identity due to the influence of globalization and other patterns that are foreign to our cultures, as well as the status of migration/urbanization and access to opportunities for professional training,” says Pariona Tarqui.

The young activists have also pointed out that, “It is important to integrate ethno-cultural, gender and age variables in census, household surveys and others,” a practice that is being implemented in some countries of the region.

Indigenous youth challenge the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) views on child labour, saying, “We should have the right to define life stages and cycles from the perspective of indigenous peoples and according to our different worldviews. In the indigenous world, to be a child or a young person is not necessarily determined by age but by the learnings they have achieved and the value each culture assigns to that learning” Pariona Tarqui explains.

In the search for solutions

In their own ways, in every country, different organizations and the States themselves have attempted to address some of the problems or reduce the gaps mentioned above. But for Velasque, one of the main obstacles is, “The machismo that still exists in decision-making spaces which are key to advancing social awareness and implementing public policies, programs and projects.”

It is important to acknowledge the arduous work that indigenous women are doing to mobilize and to propose and demand solutions, Velasque adds, “In recent years efforts have been made by women themselves to present proposals. Street actions, sit-ins and demonstrations have been organized to achieve, among others, quota laws, the Free Maternity and Childhood Care Law (Ecuador) and culturally appropriate birth care (that is not yet very visible in the region but there are local initiatives that have been recognized by Health Ministries). In some countries bodies such as Women’s Ministries, National Councils for Women, or under-secretaries have been created, but many remain only as good intentions and nothing else, as they lack budgets and suitable and empowered staff.”

With regards to the participation of young women, Pariona Tarqui tells us, “Since 2004, the Continental Network of Indigenous Women of the Americas has integrated the issue of childhood and youth in their agenda for discussion, and have progressively been promoting the participation of young women leaders in training and participation spaces, as well as in its continental meetings. The Network’s governing assembly integrated the Commission of Indigenous Children and Youth into its structure recently.

Advancements in rights across the region

Velasque points out that, “In several countries there are laws in favour of women, but of women in general, not specifically for indigenous women, black women, rural women; they are for all women, but there are striking differences between their life conditions, cultural, economic and geographical situations. In spite of this reality, indigenous women have empowered themselves and they have somehow adjusted those rights and are making use of them.”

According to Pariona Tarqui there have been some of the general advances in the region, which include “Recognition of the specific rights of indigenous women in the Beijing Platform for Action, on the basis of recognizing our right to be different. Having the right to participate with our own voices. Our elder sisters have proved that it is possible to be present and speak with our own voice, to articulate our thoughts, proposals and challenges as indigenous peoples. To make our specific demands as indigenous women visible within the international indigenous movement. In some countries there has been progress in terms of access to political participation, breaking discriminatory barriers based on ethnic background and gender; a mutually respectful dialogue with other social movements, like the feminist and Afro-descendant movements has been achieved. Finally, I must say that to exercise our rights as indigenous women is still an ongoing struggle, one that involves not only indigenous women but also indigenous peoples as a whole and other actors, policy-makers and regional programs.”

The challenges and looking to the future

“The challenge for indigenous women and particularly for the Latin American indigenous women’s organizations is to achieve a specific declaration on indigenous women’s rights,” says Velasque, “because the struggle for indigenous women’s rights is not only for electoral politics, or to achieve power for the sake of power. It goes far beyond this, to include for instance land use and access, the relation to Pacha Mama (Mother Earth), food sovereignty and not just food security, social justice and not merely a justice that stops at repression, compensation or purification.”

For Pariona Tarqui what is pending is, “To exercise our individual and collective rights as indigenous peoples and also to develop and implement specific policies for indigenous women, with enough resource allocation. It is also important to have a multicultural approach to health or education, which should not be restricted only to some aspects, like language, but it has to be understood in its broad and full dimension. Creating new cadres of constructive leaders, reducing inequality and gaps in equity are also important”.

* Cecilia Velasque is the Environmental Management Director with the Cotopaxi provincial government in Ecuador. Tania Edith Pariona Tarqui belongs to the Quechua Indigenous Nation in the Cayara community, Fajardo province, Ayacucho, Peru. She is a member of the Youth Network ÑOQANCHIQ and the Youth Secretary for Organización Nacional de Mujeres Indígenas del Peru (ONAMIAP, National Organization of Indigenous Women of Peru), that houses the Continental Network of Indigenous Women of the Americas.

Further reading

Youth and Human Rights: (By clicking the “English” button this page performs an automatic translation)

Background and history of the Meeting: By clicking the “English” button this page performs an automatic translation)

Preparatory Meeting for the VI Meeting of Indigenous Women of America

Alianza de Mujeres Indígenas de Centroamérica y México (Alliance of Indigenous Women’s from Central America and Mexico) In Spanish: